Many books have been written about the Titanic and its fateful voyage in April 1912, some fiction, some real stories. Most have centred on the Titanic and the people on board. This book is different; it is all about the sinking of the Titanic but as seen from the eyes of the crew of the SS Californian, the ship that was nearby as the Titanic slid beneath the waves yet did nothing to go to her aid.
- David Dyer
That is the question that the central character asks. John Steadman is an American journalist sent by his paper to cover the news of the sinking. Steadman’s forte is reporting disasters like fires in factories with lots of dead people. He writes about the dead, taking their side and telling the story that they are no longer able to tell. Ghoulish but it pays well. He is sent to meet the rescue ships coming in with the bodies but when he finds out that the SS Californian, which was in the vicinity of the sinking had no bodies, he becomes suspicious. Statements from the forthright, authoritarian and overbearing Captain Lord of the Californian, don’t ring true, so he then starts to think the real story is not that of the Titanic but of the SS Californian.
This book is a work of Faction. The newspaperman, Steadman, is fictitious, as are a couple of other characters, but the main players are all real and the story is lifted from newspaper reports of the time and from the official enquiries held in both USA and UK. Also the book is strange in that, being the story of the investigative journalist, it finishes off with a pamphlet that he writes about the fate of one of the families on board; a little more on that later.
The story is very well done and the writing good, easy to read and flowing. While the story is based on newspaper reports, the author does not make the error of reverting to the patois of the time, unless it is a direct quote, making the book much easier to read. The Midnight Watch at sea is from Midnight to 4 am, properly called the Middle Watch but with the obvious nickname. The Second Officer has that watch traditionally and just prior to going up to take over; he sees lights in the distance of what looks like a liner, well lit up. The Captain is on the Bridge when he arrives and they talk about the other ship and the Captain tells the Second to keep an eye on it and let him know if anything changes. The Californian was stopped in an ice field and the Captain feels it too dangerous to proceed at night. The Second keeps and eye on the ship and sees rockets, which he reports to the Captain – twice but who decides they are Company Rockets for signalling between Company ships. The Second is told to watch the ship and finally the lights disappear, which he reports to the Captain who says the ship has sailed away then. Nothing is done and the Californian sits in the ice field, stationary, while hundreds of people die on the Titanic and in the seas around it.
In the Californian radio room the Marconi Man (radio operator) had tried just before midnight to send signals but was told to shut up by the Titanic’s Marconi Man who said he had more important traffic to send. The Californian’s radio man switches off the radio and goes to sleep – missing all the distress calls some hour or so later.
In the morning, when the radio is switched on all becomes very apparent and the Captain orders the Californian to the site at full speed but of course too late. He stays to search the area but finds nothing but the odd coat or life jacket, no survivors or bodies. Knowing the consequences the Captain orders the Californian to its intended port of Boston but when he arrives he sticks to the story that they did not know the Titanic was sinking and thought the rockets were Company not Distress Signals.
That is the pilot and of course the story is about how the journalist sees events, his observations, suspicions and doubts, especially as crew members start breaking ranks and telling their story, not the Captain’s. Steadman becomes obsessed by events, losing his job and leaving his family behind, but he has to trail the Californian to the UK to cover the UK Court of Enquiry and the story that Captain Lord tells, and sticks to. In doing so Lord is found to have done nothing wrong officially but is in fact vilified and a few months later sacked from the Company he is with. Steadman returns home.
Years later, as an old man Steadman returns to England from the USA in the hope that he can get the Second Officer and the Captain to relent and tell the real story. He is up against a brick wall and they have no intention of changing their story.
This brings us to the rather strange but compelling, novella at the end of the book, which is written by Steadman to illustrate the story of one large family going third class to America to start a new life. Husband and wife and nine children. The novella is called Eight Rockets, which is the number of distress rockets sent up by the Titanic as distress signals and which the Second Officer saw and reported to his Captain. This more than anything else tells of the tragedies that took place that night with people struggling to get on board lifeboats which were being launched half empty. A good, if somewhat sad, ending to the book.
I liked this book as it was approaching a very well known and written about event from a completely different angle, yet is full of humanity and human failings and not just from those on the Californian. I would recommend this book to you as a good thriller to read and an enthralling tale, shocking in its truthful horror.
4/5 Mr MRHs